Texas Education Agency Responds to Lawsuit; Claims Parents Have No ‘Standing’

AUSTIN — On Monday, Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a response on behalf of Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath in Travis County District Court in connection with Lewis et al. v. Morath, a lawsuit brought by four parents from the Houston, Dallas, Austin and Beaumont areas seeking declaratory judgment. The parent plaintiffs seek to have the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) scores for Grades 3-8 thrown out because they didn’t comply with new laws passed by the Texas Legislature on an emergency basis last summer. After ignoring the Texas Legislature, the agency is now saying that a Texas judge should not be the one to determine if it broke the law.

The response was submitted on the last possible day allowed by court rules in what appears to be a calculated move to delay parents from being heard in court before the new school year begins. The short, 200-word filing, submitted by six assistant attorneys in addition to the Attorney General, provides only a general denial with no attempt to explain how this year’s STAAR complies with House Bill 743 or any specific answers to the facts outlined in the parents’ 26-page petition.

Most disturbingly, Commissioner Morath and the agency make the argument that parents “lack standing” and do not have the right to sue the Texas Education Agency in court. They claim parents must complain to the agency itself if they believe the agency broke the law. This means the TEA not only chose to ignore the Texas Legislature but now deems itself beyond the reach of the Texas judiciary.

After reading Mr. Morath’s answer, Jennifer Rumsey, who is both a plaintiff and a public school teacher, said, 

“I am shocked and saddened that the TEA refuses to recognize my right to have a judge listen to my complaint, especially when the agency broke the law and is irreversibly damaging our schools in the process. They have already treated our children and our teachers with great disrespect, and the thought that I should continue to trust them to resolve my issues is insulting.” 

Now that a formal response has been filed, the suit enters the discovery phase, the process by which the parties collect evidence in various ways such as depositions, written interrogatories, requests to produce documents, etc. Discovery can also include third parties such as vendors. When a party objects to a discovery request, the requesting party can seek the assistance of the court to compel discovery.

Discovery is an important part of this legal action as the Texas Education Agency and the Attorney General have been very aggressive at denying open records requests related to STAAR. Having a judge determine what information should be shared with the public is an important step towards transparency for the state’s education “accountability” system.

Scott Placek, of the law firm Arnold & Placek and lead attorney for the plaintiffs, stated, 

“Discovery requests have already been filed, and we expect to uncover additional evidence for our claims.”

A timeline for a hearing has not been set, but the plaintiffs plan to press forward and vigorously argue that parents do, indeed, have the right to be heard in court.  

The Committee to Stop STAAR was formed out of a grassroots fundraising campaign to raise funds supporting legal action against the TEA. Donors to the campaign are a diverse group of parents, grandparents, teachers and concerned citizens from around the state who demand action after the TEA ignored the common sense reforms that many felt they had won during last year’s legislative session. Fundraising began on March 30, 2016—the same week as the first administration of this year’s STAAR—with a GoFundMe campaign (gofundme.com/StopSTAAR) that has since raised over $22,000 from more than 300 donors. On the way to a fundraising goal of $25,000, donations have ranged from $5 to $5,000 dollars and have come from every corner of the state. The Committee seeks additional financial support to keep the suit going through hearings and a court decision.

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